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Chasing The Dragon

Novel By: Kayla Meyers
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As a teenager, Gabriel McCallahan was headed down the wrong path in life -- addicted to heroin and the member of a notorious street-gang in Baltimore. Then, when he was nineteen, everything changed. After an incident between the gang and the police that resulted in the death of his brother, Sean, Gabriel was forced to leave the city and start anew. Now, five years later, Gabriel lives as recluse in downtown New York city, alone in an apartment with his cat and only friend, Trevor Daniels. But Gabriel's seemingly peaceful life is turned upside down once more when he meets Rhiannon, a young heroin addicted girl who is heading down the same road Gabriel was on just a few years ago. Gabriel goes on a mission to save Rhiannon, but in the process he begins to wonder if it's him who really needs to be saved, and if he's seen her before... View table of contents...


Chapters:

1 2 3 4

Submitted:Jun 10, 2007    Reads: 113    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Chasing the Dragon

By: Kayla Meyers

He moved almost silently through the dark, creeping along like dawn creeps over the earth, as it was now. The sun was just beginning its lazy yawn and stretch in the horizon, shedding the world in soft hues of lavender and indigo. It hadn't snowed much this winter, but on this January morning he stepped outside his apartment to find the city blanketed in shimmering ivory powder. Skittering flurries trembled down from the flat steel-gray clouds, and he pulled the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head, tightening the drawstrings around his chin. Over the top of the hoodie he wore a thick green Army jacket with red patches stitched on the shoulders. As he treaded along, his hands stuffed deep inside the pockets of his jacket, the snow crunched almost inaudibly beneath his light, quick steps. The footprints left by his black tennis shoes were only shallow indents that would be covered in just a few minutes, erasing any trace of him as if he'd never been there at all. In this somber early morning light, the city looked like a scene inside a snow globe; the buildings all stood dark and silent, the shades drawn in the windows of the apartment complexes and stores locked securely by iron grid-doors and padlocks. The streets were completely deserted save for a few snow-covered cars parked near the curb. The air felt compressed and thick, whispering hollowly in his ears and manifesting itself in white billows as he exhaled. He crossed the street to the park at the end of 82nd street, his shoulders hunched and eyes cast downward.

He made his way up the stairs to the pathway that led squarely around the grass to the other side where the three-tiered, limestone fountain was set at the base of the second staircase. During warm days kids could be seen playing around (or trying to jump in) the fountain under the watchful eyes of their parents, students from the local college two blocks up and businessmen sat on one of the four benches eating their lunches, while love-struck teenagers dreamily made wishes on pennies and threw them in. Now the water, ethereally white, cascaded from one tier to the next, collecting in the pool base and freezing in a thin, opaque mirror of ice. The branches inside the grassy area buckled under the weight of the snow, hanging low and ready to break. The early-birds sang merrily from their telephone wire perches, their piercing calls slicing through the still air, echoing and bouncing off the buildings. Once he made it to the far side of the park he cut past the fountain and headed down the stairs to the sidewalk below, making his way around the tall, handsome brick Public Library. He went around to the left and slipped inside the alleyway between the library and the college dormitory building. With the dumpsters along the buildings and chain link fence at the end, it could hardly pass for an alley, but it was the perfect spot to duck in for a morning smoke. The carelessly thrown out garbage - empty bags of Doritos, take-out boxes with half the meal still inside, and innumerable cigarette butts - crunched beneath his feet as he wedged himself behind the library's trash bins. He reached inside the pocket of his sweatshirt and fished out a brand new pack of Marlboro.

Gabriel stood alone, smoking while the world slept in its white slumber.

At first, she wasn't sure she had actually seen him at all. It was a little past 5:45 AM, and Rhiannon was the only one awake in the apartment. The first light dusting had begun around 3:30, speckling the black pavement like confectioners sugar. Now the snow piled up against the buildings at least two-and-a-half inches deep, covering the cars and framing the windowsills. The small patch of grass had all but vanished half an hour ago. The windows were frosted over in an icy sheen, leaving only a small circle of clear pane. Behind her, everything had fallen silent. Evidence of the previous nights' festivities lay strewn haphazardly about the living room and kitchenette; empty beer cans - mostly Bud Light and Coors - littered the floor along with randomly discarded articles of clothing. She mused dully at the array of different colored lingerie.

A rainbow of underwear, she thought and giggled to herself.

A bar had been set up at the countered which separated the kitchen from the dining room (really not a dining room at all, just a small round table with two mismatched chairs); Jaggermeister, gin, vodka, tequila - the standard necessities. The table itself was covered with weed, and the smell of burnt leaves lingered thickly in the air, mixed with the aromas of the various liquors. Most people hated that smell, but for Rhiannon it was the smell of home. She didn't go for marijuana or alcohol herself. She preferred the pure stuff; heroine was her poison. Every now and then she'd take a hit of freebase cocaine if it was offered, but it made her jittery and the high didn't last long enough.

Her supplies lie across the coffee table in the living room where she sat by the window; cotton balls and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a U-100 syringe, and the bottom of a soda can to act as a spoon to dissolve the heroine. All of this sat next to the ashtray that was overflowing with the Camel cigarettes she'd been chain-smoking since she shot up. She'd given herself the injection nearly three hours ago, but the high was just now beginning to fade into a low, humming buzz between her temples. She'd collapsed into the big leather armchair that swallowed her small body up, and remained curled up with her legs tucked under her, staring listlessly out at the dark, empty streets. She rested her head back against the chair, watching the snow fall and fading in and out of the hazy drug cloud. Her left arm throbbed from the lack of blood flow caused by the tourniquet she tied into a knot just above her elbow, but she hardly noticed; her entire body felt heavy and tingly.

She began to close her eyes, floating back into that dark cloud when something moved just to the left of her field of vision; a quick-moving, shadowy form moved across the street, momentarily blotting out the sky. Then, just as quickly, it was gone again. For a moment she thought maybe it was simply a hallucination brought on by the drug. After all, she had injected more than usual this morning. She was about to write it off as nothing more than a mirage when she saw the shrouded form again, this time in front of the library. Yet again, it had vanished into the alley between the dorms and the library in the blink of an eye. She sat forward, squinting her eyes. There was someone out there, a dark figure moving through the chilly winter morning.

She began to stand up, grunting at the dead weight of her arm. It felt like someone had stuck a million little pins in the nerves from her elbow to her wrist. Above the tourniquet her arm was bloated, hanging over the band. Below it the skin had taken on bluish, translucent tint. With a horrified groan, she quickly untied it with her good hand and threw it on the table with disgust. A rush of heat gushed down her arm to her almost completely numb hand. Slowly she began to move her fingers, working out the stiffness. Eventually the pulsating, stinging pain subsided and she got to her feet. One of Rick's friends, a young boy with blonde, sun-streaked hair whose name she could never remember - Gary, or maybe it was Jerry - was passed out on the loveseat across from her. His body was almost comically twisted in an upside-down, spread-eagle position; his head was hanging limply at an angle, half supported by the bottom cushion. His was slack, his lower lip quivering slightly as he drew in long breaths that made ragged, garbled noises in his throat. One arm was thrown over his head on the back of the chair while the other dangled flaccidly by the floor. Curled beneath his body was his left leg, the other stuck out ramrod straight. Rhiannon crept across the room, stepping over the sleeping boy carefully. She tripped over his dangling foot and she stumbled forward, knocking his foot against the coffee table. Cringing inwardly, she braced herself for him to wake up in an angry, drunken stupor. But Gary-or-Jerry simply moaned quietly in his sleep, then turned over and fell quiet again. With a sigh of relief, Rhiannon grabbed her light denim jacket off the kitchen table and slipped out of the apartment.

The sun was a ball of white fire suspended over the East Village skyline. A lone American Goldfinch sailed overhead, the beating of its wings the only sound that could be hear in the still morning, a sound that at any other time would have been drown out by the loud buzz of the bustling city. She pulled her jacket around herself with her arms, shivering against the biting chill of the air. The snow had already partially covered the footprints left by whoever was out here, but the trail was still visible enough that she could mirror his steps to the alley. He'd had to side-step in order to fit between the trash bins into the small crack, and she carefully maneuvered around them as he had done. The top of his gray hood was visible above the blue dumpsters. A continues trail of smoked curled around him and dissipated above him, the sharp smell of tobacco hung in the air.

She sidled around the dormitory building and stood across from him. He was leaning back against the checkerboard of dark crimson bricks, his shoulders casually hunched forward, one leg bent behind him and his head lowered. Between his fore- and middle fingers the cigarette dangled loosely, emitting a thin stream of smoke from its glowing, bright red tip. He seemed oblivious to the fact that there was another living soul on Earth, let alone that someone was standing right in front of him. She stood quietly for a minute, waiting for him to acknowledge her. When he didn't, she cleared her throat, softly. Still no response. She might as well have been one of the trash bins.

Finally, she spoke.

--

"Hey, do you mind?"

Zoning out had always been one of Gabriel's...'special talents'. From the time he was a kid, he had a knack for retreating inside himself and tuning everything out. Someone could be talking an inch from his face and he would just stare blankly right through them. He could hear nothing, see nothing, almost feel nothing. And it always seemed to happen at the most inopportune moments; during English class, when his grandmother was telling him "for the fifth time, don't put a dish towel on the stove while you're cooking", while a cop was reprimanding him for going on a joyride while intoxicated with his brothers. He didn't always mean to, but his mind was like a computer; after a while, he shut down and the screensaver popped up. A few years ago this ability to disconnect was aided by the great numbing elixir known as heroin. Back then, after he shot up you could have set off a bomb next to his head without so much as a twitch in response. But even now that he was sober - five years as of today, in fact - it was still just as easy for him to get lost inside that dark cave in his mind and shut the world out.

When her voice cut through his daze and entered his consciousness, he froze. Who could possibly be out here at this hour? No one should be awake this early in the morning besides except the birds and mice. His first instinct was to run. His eyes darted around, anxiously searching for an escape route. The fence at the end of the alley stood roughly four feet high with forbidding, rusted barbed wire stretched across the top. Even if he could make it over without being caught, there was still the risk of getting your clothes snagged, or getting one nasty scrape. And a tetanus shot was not on his list of Things to Do Today. The other way was blocked by the dumpsters, so it was out of the question. He was trapped.

"Hey..." The voice said again. Besides the slight edge of irritation, the voice sounded completely non-threatening; it was soft, hesitant, and obviously female.

Slowly, he looked over.

The speaker was, indeed, a young girl. And even in this dim light, he could tell she was a very beautiful girl, at that; a petite little thing standing probably five-two at most, and certainly she wasn't any older than fifteen. She could definitely stand to gain five or even ten pounds; her green, low-cut t-shirt and long black skirt hung loosely on her thin body. No, scrawny was a better word for her, yet she still had all the natural curves of a woman around her chest and hips. Her complexion was that of a porcelain China doll, not ashen and dull, but creamy and flawless. The tiny freckles splayed across the bridge of her nose and cheeks were brought out by the slanted rays of sunlight dancing across her face. Her soft, full lips pouted naturally in a perfect bow, the blushing pink of brand new rosebuds in early spring. Long, bright, vibrant red hair hung over her shoulder in a twisted rope. As lovely as all her features were, the most striking was her eyes; big, almond-shaped pools of emerald green with a ring of gold around the pupils. They studied him with innocent curiosity, yet something in them reflected a wisdom that far surpassed her childlike face and underdeveloped body. Enchanting, captivating eyes...

"Do you mind?" She repeated.

He blinked, dumbfounded. "Huhn?" Then he looked down and saw the pack of Marlboros he was still holding. "Oh, uh, yeah, sure..." he mumbled as he held the pack out to her.

"Thanks," she said, plucking a cigarette out of the pack.

He slipped the Marlboros back into his sweatshirt pocket and turned away from her again, taking nervously long drags on his own cigarette. When he looked back she was looking at him with one eyebrow cocked.

"What?" He asked, shifting uneasily on his feet.

She held up her unlit cigarette, raising her eyebrows even more. "Got a light?"

"Oh. Yeah," he replied stupidly. He reached back into his jacket and fished out his Zippo, surprised to find his hands shaking a little as he did so, and struggled with the flint wheel. Finally, it sparked and he shielded the flame with a cupped hand as he held it out to her. Once the tip began to glow, he snapped the lighter closed and placed it back in his jacket.

He thought she would leave after that, but she didn't. He stood uncomfortably stiff, taking long drags and letting the burning nicotine fill his lungs, then releasing the smoke as slowly as possible. Maybe if he ignored her long enough and didn't make eye contact, she'd eventually lose interest. No such luck. Every time he looked back she was still standing there, staring at him with those mesmerizing, unnaturally green eyes.

He couldn't stand it anymore - He absolutely hated to be stared at, and he especially hated the way she was staring at him, as if she could see inside him. Ignoring her obviously wasn't working. Time for Plan B: Be as repulsive as possible.

"What?" He asked sharply, his irritation unmistakably apparent. "Are you lost, little girl?"

She flinched at his tone, as if he'd physically struck her. "N-No, I was just... I'm Rhiannon," she told him quietly.

"That's nice," he said sarcastically.

She looked down for a moment, and then raised her head with determination. Well, she was persistent, he could give her that much.

"So... Where do you live? I don't think I've seen you before."

"Around," he replied shortly. By now he had smoked his cigarette down to the filter, and he cringed inwardly as it burned his fingers. He tossed it aside, stomped it out, and then immediately pulled out another.

"What's your name?" She tried again. She stood with her arms wrapped around her waist, but he figured it was due to being cold rather than modesty. Shy girls didn't wear plunging necklines in 17 degree weather. Moreover, shy girls didn't go bare under their plunging necklines.

"What are you, a decoy for the CIA?" He snapped, then sighed. "Look, maybe I don't have a name. Maybe mommy and daddy just didn't love me enough to name me, okay?" he told her, the sarcasm dripping from every word. "And speaking of mommy and daddy, yours are probably looking for you right now. You should run on home, kiddo."

"I'm not a child!" she said indignantly.

"Then, what are you? A hooker? Listen, sweetheart, you'll have to forgive me, because I'm not interested."

"I'm not a hooker, either! How dare you talk to me like that, you don't know anything about me!" She yelled. At once she threw her cigarette down, standing with her legs apart and balling her hands into fists so tightly that her knuckles turned white. To Gabriel she looked like a young, scrawny boxer who has just stepped into a ring with a seasoned fighter that clearly outweighs him by more than fifty pounds. It would have been funny, if she didn't have that killer's glare in her eyes.

He stared at her with his mouth open, shocked by her sudden outburst. Then he stepped forward, reaching out to touch her arm. "Whoa, sweetheart, calm down -"

"Don't call me that!" Rhiannon shouted, whirling around to face him.

Suddenly he found himself staring deep into those eyes, now alight with fiery anger. Her freckles stood out even more across her nose, hectic color flamed on the apples of her cheeks, her mouth pursed in a tight frown. Somehow, this way she was even more beautiful.

Gabriel stepped back, putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, okay. All right, just relax, sweet - I mean, it's Rhiannon, right? Rhiannon, I'm sorry."

She eyed him warily, still looking poised to attack.

"Gabriel," he admitted finally. "My name is Gabriel. Look, I really am sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." Well, yes, actually that's exactly what he meant to do. "My defenses are up, I guess. But you're right, I don't know you and I shouldn't have said those things."

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at her feet.

"You, uh, dropped your cigarette. Want another?" He offered.

"No," she said quietly.

They stood in awkward silence until he thought of something to say.

"So, how old are you?" He cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at her. Great, now you're trying to pick her up? Oh, you're a class act, Gabriel.

"Nineteen," she told him with a little pride. "I'll be twenty in two weeks."

Nineteen? You've got to be kidding me. He thought about saying this aloud, then decided against it.

She seemed to read his mind and gave him a bemused smirk. "I know, I look a lot younger. But trust me, I'm older than you think." She added this last bit with a radiantly coy smile, then winked at him.

He smiled back a little and started to speak when -

"Rhiannon!"

The gruff, unpleasant voice came from behind them, startling them both. Rhiannon stiffened, all of the color draining from her face.

"What's wrong?" Gabriel asked, frowning.

She motioned for him to be quiet then turned around, reluctantly walking out to the street.

"Rick?" She said timidly.

"What are you doing?" The angry voice came again. It sounded like grinding metal and make Gabriel cringe.

Suddenly, a man appeared near the opening of the alley where Rhiannon stood. He was tall and stocky with a shiny bald head. Rhiannon yelped as he seized her arms, roughly pulling her to him.

"What have I told you? Huh? You stupid girl," he growled lowly in her face. As he spoke he shook her furiously.

She whimpered in pain and cowered back, the image a far cry from the girl who looked ready to fight just moments before. "I-I'm sorry, I was just -"

He continued to shake her and berate her, his warm breath blowing billows of smoke in her face. Gabriel straightened up and put his cigarette out, ready to go out and break them up. It's none of your business. You know what happens when you butt in where you don't belong. Stay out of it, a voice inside told him. Guiltily, he stood back and looked away. Rhiannon continued to try to reason with the man, but she was becoming increasingly afraid and he was getting angrier every time she spoke. At last she submitted and let him take her, leading her by the shoulders like a child. Before she disappeared she glanced in Gabriel's direction with a look of terror and desperation. He watched her go, shame churning in his stomach. And something else, another feeling that he couldn't place. It came when she turned around for one last time, and he saw her frightened eyes.

A feeling like dejavu.

After he finished his third cigarette, he walked out into the bright sunlight and headed back to his apartment. Subconsciously, he glanced back in the direction the man had dragged Rhiannon in.

--

Gabriel sat in the armchair in his living room, his feet propped up on the ottoman as he read. The floor lamp beside him warmed the dark room with golden light, casting long shadows off the walls onto the floor. Outside the hi-intensity streetlights were beginning to come on, shedding orange-yellow light across the street. It was beginning to get dark. Around 5:00 he had turned the Van Dam movie on TV off in favor of a Stephen King novel. When Gabriel first moved into this apartment he found Salem's Lot stashed on the top shelf of the closet in his room, and one day out of sheer boredom and curiosity he began to leaf through the book. He finished it that very day. After that he built his collection by scouring the local bookstores for discounts and rummaging through the assortment of throwaways at pawn shops. By now, he owned almost every book King had written, including a few compilations of short stories.

Something brushed against his leg, causing him to jump. He looked down and saw Chester, the orange and white tabby he shared the apartment with, staring up at him with his bright amber eyes and purring. Shortly after he came to the city, Gabriel found Chester wandering the streets, digging through the garbage for something to eat. He was starving to death and sick, so Gabriel lured him with into a cage with food and took him to the vet. The next thing he knew, the cat was his. Before he'd never cared much for animals, but he didn't mind having Chester around. He enjoyed the company, however moody and aloof he was.

"Hey, boy," Gabriel said with a smile, leaning forward and scratching the cat behind the ear. Chester purred happily and nuzzled against Gabriel's hand, then looked up at him and meowed. Gabriel looked up at the clock: 6:15. "Dinnertime, huh, boy? Okay, I'm coming." He marked his place with the brown leather bookmark and closed it, standing up with a stretch.

Chester led the way, padding across the living room to the kitchen. Gabriel followed and flicked on the light. The small kitchen brightened immediately with florescent white light. He went to the pantry and dug out the bag of Purina cat food, then walked over to the small dish next to the sink and scooped out a handful. Immediately, Chester began to nibble away eagerly. Gabriel smiled and scratched the top of the cat's stripped head. Chester made a small growling noise.

"Oh, sorry, buddy. I forgot you don't like to be bothered while you're eating," he said, then thought to himself, God, now you're talking to the cat. You need a life, buddy.

He sighed and put the cat food away, then wandered over to the fridge and looked in. A rancid smell rushed out in a wave, causing his stomach to churn. God, he really needed to clean this thing out more often; the cartons of milk sat in the front, all more than two weeks past their expiration dates. Hiding behind them were various take-out containers which had probably been sitting there longer than the milk. Half-empty, flat cans of Diet Coke and Sprite. And, ugh, he didn't even know what had been in the Tupperware on the bottom shelf, but it was growing a fuzzy, splotchy green-brown mold and smelled horrible. He picked it up by the corner like a dead fish and threw it in the wastebasket. The freezer didn't offer many options for dinner, either. A few trays of ice, a box of fish sticks, and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. He closed it and drummed his fingers on the counter thoughtfully.

"Looks like it's time for a little grocery errand," he said to the cat, who ignored him and kept eating contently. Gabriel took his sweatshirt off the coat rack and headed out.

The air outside was still chilly, but it had warmed up considerably since this morning. Now the intersection hummed with the sound of car engines, and people hurried along the sidewalks, eager to get out of the cold night. The snow had been plowed off the streets, leaving a thin film of slush behind. Above the icicles that had formed under the eaves of buildings and on the underside of windowsills began to drip as they slowly melted. Gabriel stuffed his hands into his pockets and stared at the ground as he walked. He crossed over to 81st and Pine at the end of the block, walking quickly past the coffee shops, small toy and antique stores, and small restaurants that lined either side of the street until he came to the supermarket on Pine Street.

Once inside, he shook the snow out of his hair and off his jacket, stomping his shoes on the Welcome mat inside the doors. He surveyed the fifteen aisles, trying to decide what he wanted. Eventually he decided on the trusty Frozen Food section. It wasn't that he minded actually cooking, but nothing he made seemed to come out just right, so he had come to the conclusion that anything that could be stuck in the microwave for a few minutes was his best bet. It was a lot cheaper, too. As he walked along the rows of refrigerators, he absentmindedly rubbed the small patch of facial hair on his chin, thinking. At last he decided on a couple Swanson frozen dinners, some Ham & Cheese Hot Pockets, and a box of pepperoni pizza Bagel Bites. Not the healthiest selections, but hey, he was still young; he figured he could get away with it for a couple more years. He turned around, and bumped into someone.

It was Rhiannon. She was dressed more discreetly than she was this morning; a long-sleeved black sweater and faded blue jeans. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, making her look even younger than before. There was a deep purple bruise on her left cheek just below her eye, both of which were red and swollen. Her bottom lip was bloated with dried blood in the corner. She looked tired and scared.

"Rhiannon?" He asked, shocked to see her, and in such a state. "My God, what happened to you?"

She opened her mouth to answer when that metal-grinding, deep voice cut her off harshly.

"Rhiannon..." It was the man from this morning, now wearing a long black coat and a beanie over his bald head.

She looked back at him. "I'm coming," she told him obediently, then turned back to Gabriel. "Just leave me alone," she said flatly before turning, almost mechanically, and walking over to the man. He shot Gabriel a glare before putting his arm possessively around Rhiannon and pulling her away.

Gabriel watched, frozen. Part of him wanted to go after her, part of him knew he should go after her. Yet another part of him - the more reasonable side, perhaps - told him again to just stay out of it. But, she's in trouble, his guilty conscience argued. So what? The cynical side answered. What are you planning to do about it? Run after her, save her from the bad guy, and whisk her off into the sunset? Get real. This is no time to play hero, and besides, you know if you get involved it will only be trouble. He sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes, then paid for his food at the register and left into the night, although the idea of dinner had suddenly lost its appeal. All the way home, he just keep seeing her face in his minds eye; that angry bruise on her cheek, and those eyes so full of pain and fright.

--

When Rhiannon bumped into Gabriel at the store, panic seized over her. She'd never expected to see him again, especially not tonight. She wanted to turn and run, but she was immobilized by fear. Of course he would notice how she looked, and what could she tell him? Well, you see that guy over there? I live with him - He's not my boyfriend, more like my keeper; I belong to him. And he's got a real nasty temper and a special affinity for beating women - if you haven't noticed, the evidence is all over my face - and I seem to have a knack for setting him off. Luckily, before she could answer him, Rick interrupted. She turned away from Gabriel and quickly went over to him, actually grateful to him for saving her from explaining herself.

"What were you doing with him?" Rick hissed in her ear as he led her away. From the outside they probably looked like a happy couple taking a leisurely stroll, but his grip was too hard, too rough to feel anything like affection.

"Nothing, we just ran into each other. I told him to stay away from me," she told him, squeezing his thick middle just for effect.

This seemed to appease him, because his grip loosened a bit and he patted her hair as they walked outside and started back for the apartment. She stayed close to him, wrapping her arms as far around his waist as she could get, resting her cheek under his arm. She was grateful for the change in his mood - One beating today was enough. After her encounter with Gabriel, Rick had dragged her back to the apartment and demanded information from her.

"A-All I found out was his name," she had said shakily, apologetically. "Gabriel. That's all he would tell me; his name is Gabriel. But, I'll try again. I'll find out more, I promise, just give me a little more time -"

His hand shot forward like a snake, punching her across the cheek just below her eye. She cried and stumbled back, her shoulder smacking into the chair by the kitchen table. Quickly she stuck her hand out and balanced herself again.

"Rick, I-I'm sorry..." she whispered pleadingly.

He slapped her again open-handedly across the mouth. She moaned and touched her lips with her fingers, and when she looked she saw he'd drawn blood. Then she tried to run, bolting for her bedroom in the back of the apartment. Halfway down the hall he seized her again, his fingers digging into her arms as he slammed her against the doorframe. One hand clutched her arm while the other wrapped around her throat, cutting off her airway. She coughed and sputtered, trying helplessly to wriggle free while also fighting to stay conscious. Splotches of red appeared in front of her eyes. His breath was hot against her face, sending chills down her spine.

"Pl-Please... Let... me... go," she barely managed to choke out. The blotchy red spots swam into her vision again and for a moment she thought she was actually going to pass out.

"I don't know why I've tolerated you for this long. You're worthless," he snarled in her ear, his breath tickling the hairs on her neck. Then he let her go and stalked off.

Rhiannon collapsed on the floor, retching and gasping for breath as she massaged her throat. Warm blood trickled from her lip down her chin, her cheek was throbbing. Once she could breathe and her vision returned to normal, she got up slowly and walked into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror and winced; the spot below her left eye was already turning dark blue, her bottom lip was swollen and blood was streaking thinly down her chin, the spots on her neck that his hands were wrapped around were blue and indented. She wadded up a piece of toilet paper and wetted it, wiping off her chin and dabbing the corner of her mouth. After she cleaned herself up, she slumped down against the wall and cried.

An hour later she emerged from the bathroom, tired but otherwise feeling a little better. The throbbing pain in her cheek had subsided, and her lip had finally stopped bleeding. Ricky was thankfully gone, so she quietly went into her bedroom, drew up some heroin and shot up, then fell asleep on her bed. The next thing she knew, Ricky was shaking her lightly and telling her to get up, he wanted to go to the store. She got up and followed him submissively.

Now they arrived home to the empty, dark apartment. Immediately, she went into the bathroom, got two sleeping pills from the medicine cabinet - there were enough drugs in here to be considered a pharmacy: sleeping pills, uppers, downers, speed, Xanax, speed, an assortment of painkillers - and swallowed them dry, then went straight to bed.

As she slept, she dreamed of Gabriel.

--

One week and a day after he first met Rhiannon, Gabriel had all but forgotten the incident. He didn't go out much during the day, and he never saw her again when he went out for his morning cigarette. Subconsciously, he still thought of her from time to time; at night when her eyes floated into his dreams, or a girl with long red hair passed by he would suddenly see her bruised, pained face. That was only occasionally, though, and otherwise he never thought of her.

On January 23rd, Gabriel was awoken to the sound of someone walking around his kitchen. Pots and pans clattered around, then someone was turning on the stove. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, still disoriented from being woken so abruptly. The digital alarm clock on the nightstand told him it was 6:35 a.m. He sat for a moment and listened. More clattering, and now it sounded like they were going through his fridge. He got up, grabbing the baseball bat that stood against the wall by his bed. Call him paranoid, but this was the city, and it wasn't uncommon for homeless people to go sneaking around someone else's house in search of food early in the morning. You couldn't blame him for wanting a little protection. Gabriel held the bat in front of him defensively as he walked out to the kitchen and peered in the doorway.

It was Trevor, his friend that lived in the apartment below Gabriel. He was casually poking around in the fridge and cracking eggs into a skillet on the stove, singing a horrendously off-key version of "Fly Me to the Moon" to himself as he cooked an omelet. Gabriel exhaled sharply in relief, causing Trevor to jump.

"Trevor, what are you doing here? It's 6 a.m.," he moaned irritably, leaning against the doorframe.

"Hey, good mornin', Gabe!" Trevor said cheerfully. He began to dice a tomato for his three-egg omlete. "Want some eggs?"

"No, man. What have I told you about coming up like this? I was ready to bash your brains in," he said, holding up the bat.

"Aw, I'm sorry, dude. My boss called, I have to go in, doesn't that suck? Anyway, I wanted some breakfast, but I was out of eggs. I won't do it anymore, I promise," he said guiltily.

"No, no. It's fine, man, I'm sorry," Gabriel said resignedly as he sat down at the table. "Just... Call from now on, okay?"

"Sure thing!" Trevor brightened instantly, flipping his eggs over and sliding them onto a plate.

Gabe put his head in his arms and had to stifle a laugh. Trevor was generally a good guy, it was just this little habit he had of coming over, uninvited. Usually it didn't bother him that much, unless it was this early in the morning. Trevor sat across from him at the table and they talked as he ate. When he finished he got up and put his plate and fork in the sink.

"Don't worry about that," Gabriel told him as he stood up. "I'll take care of it. You're gonna be late for work. Again," he added with a smirk.

Trevor acted like he was going to punch him, then laughed. "Hey, thanks, man. After work tonight some of the guys and I are going out to eat, want to join us?"

Gabriel groaned to himself. Trevor was all right, but his co-workers were just a little too immature for his liking. Still, it would be nice to get out for once. "Sure."

"All right, I'll see you later then, dude," Trevor said as he clapped him on the shoulder, then headed out the door.

Then Gabriel did laugh, shaking his head a little. He went over to the sink and ran the water for the dishes.

--

Around 5:30 later that evening, Gabriel went downstairs to meet Trevor and his friends. On the phone he told Trevor he didn't mind walking, but Trevor had insisted he ride with them in his co-worker Tony's car. It was an old blue beater with chipped paint and torn seats. They pulled up to the curb and Gabriel got in the back.

"Hey, man," Trevor said from the front passenger seat.

"Hey," he said. Beside him, a sandy-haired boy was rolling a blunt and making obscene jokes, and the driver was laughing hysterically.

It was going to be a long night.

Thankfully, all the guys had to work early the next morning, so dinner ended earlier than anticipated. Tony offered to drive him back to his place, but Gabriel politely declined and opted to walk. The snow was completely gone now, and the cool night air was deliciously refreshing on his face. He got to the building and unlocked the door, walking upstairs to his apartment. He flipped on the light in the entrance and walked in. Chester was curled up in the corner of the couch, sleeping comfortably, his tail twitching back and forth erratically. He went into the kitchen and started running the water for some tea.

There was a knock on the door.

He sighed. Trevor had probably locked himself out of the apartment again and was coming up to ask for the spare. Gabriel shut the water off and went to the door.

"Trevor, how many times have I told you to -" he began, then stopped.

It wasn't Trevor. It was Rhiannon standing in the hallway, her face ghastly pale with dark rings around her eyes. She swayed unsteadily on her feet.

"Rhiannon, what -" He started to say.

Then she passed out.





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